Whiskey & Ginger Ale

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We are back from our New England travels! I am tired, and a bit disoriented, but we still managed to host our annual pumpkin carving tonight, and before heading off to dreamland, I thought I'd get a quick post in of my favorite cocktail -- whiskey and ginger ale.

I like to use quality whiskey, although nothing too too good, which I save for sipping straight or on the rocks. Lately, I've been indulging in 1792. I also like lots of cherries in my drink, a minimum of two, but preferably three. And fancy lemon cubes for that extra touch. The recipe varies based on how strong I want my drink to be that particular evening, but I tend to do three ice cubes, two shots of whiskey, and fill the rest of my glass with ginger ale. Ahhh, refreshing. Oh, and cherries, don't forget the cherries!

Stay tuned for an overview of our New England adventures -- leaves, breweries and seafood.


Thai-Style Mussels

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As I write this post, I am also packing. Because at the end of this week, we will be heading to New England! Since fall refuses to come to Southern California, I have decided to go to fall.  But, I'm still here, and there's mussels to talk about. Delicious mussels in a broth of coconut and lemongrass.

Lemongrass was the driving factor here. We have so much of it growing. And I've been really bad about using it. I decided to pick the first recipe I saw in this month's Bon Appetit using the ingredient, and just go for it.

At first, I had trouble finding mussels. I went to my fish store, nothing. I checked out a few other stores, more nothing. I almost gave up, thinking they were not in season, but my determinated to use lemongrass motivated me to stop by Bristol Farms, and success! They not only had mussels, but at a good deal (for Bristol). Good deals always make me suspicious, but, I spoke to the seafood man behind the counter and he reassured me.

I love mussels steamed in white wine, with loads of fragrant garlic and butter. So, I was a bit nervous messing with such a simple and perfect meal. But, this recipe was pretty good. It was different. It took me a few mussels and several bread dips into the broth to appreciate the flavors, but as we polished off the platter, I was sold. I think next time, I would add a bit of Thai curry powder or paste,  and more garlic to really bring out the Thai flavors.
Thai-Style Mussels
Adapted from Bon Appetit
Serves 2 as a main dish

2 1/2 lbs of mussels, scrubbed and beards removed
1 can of coconut milk
2 stalks of lemongrass, minced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1-2 thai chiles, minced
handful of cilantro
salt and pepper

1) Heat oil, I used grapeseed, in a heavy pot, and add lemongrass, garlic and chiles, cook for a few minutes, stirring frequently.
2) Add coconut milk, mussels, season, and cover. Steam mussels, stirring occasionally for 10 or so minutes.
3) When mussels have opened, remove from heat, add cilantro, and serve.

I like to serve the mussels in the pot I cooked them in. This way you don't have to wash another dish, and can enjoy all the broth and mussel juices. Make sure you have some good bread, and plenty of it. We ate this up with the husband's freshly baked sourdough. Delicious!


Fried Oysters (and Calamari Steaks)

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Since I've lived on my own, with the husband that is (a good 6+ years), I've never deep fried anything. Maybe it's because it always seems like a hassle -- so much oil involved -- oil splatter, oil clean up, oil disposal. It could also be that I find it more satisfying to order my fried food while out. But I think it's mainly because my parents cooked fries at home at least once a week, and I've probably had enough fries to last me a lifetime. Now, just so I don't soil their names without a clarification here; my parents made homemade fries, with fresh, thick-cut potatoes. Totally fresh and delicious. But still unhealthy

So last week, I was conflicted when we visited King Fish, and I can across perfect looking Pacific oysters from Washington, for a good price and listed as “ideal for frying”. I gave in. Because if I am going to fry something for the first time in my home, it better be something super deserving and delicious, like an oyster. We also bought calamari steaks and decided to make it a seafood night

I know how frying goes. I've seen it on TV, lots of times. But, when the oil is hot, and you drop your food into it, everything changes. And by that, I mean I panicked. I wasn't coating the oysters fast enough, I was making a mess, and did I mention the oil is really hot? Well, my first oyster browned too quickly, but by oyster three, I had collected myself, gained some confidence, and got the job done. By oyster 10, I was a pro.

Now, here's what I learned from this process:
1) Get a decent size pot. I used the smallest little pot I had, mostly because I only had so much vegetable oil, but this made things difficult.
2) Get help. As you can see from the photos below I looked pretty organized, with my coatings all pretty and lined up. But looks can be deceiving. And two hands were just not enough. And since I had another perfectly capable pair of hands around, I should have asked to use them. It would have just made things easier.
3) Don't be afraid to adjust your temperature. Especially with something like oysters, where you are doing batches, the temperature drops when the cold oysters goes in, so you can increase the heat, initially, then lower it.
4) It's hard to screw up fried food, especially when you use big, plump oysters. These were pretty incredible, and even though I knew not what I was doing, the oysters were delicious, gooey in the middle, perfectly cooked, even by the clueless. And this included my first two "mistake" oysters, which still managed to stay juicy.
I did some research, and decided on a very simple recipe -- flour and cornstarch, eggs (seasoned with salt and pepper), and breadcrumbs (flavored with cumin and chili powder). I used the same coating on the calamari steaks, except that I soaked them first in whole milk, for about 30 minutes. The steaks were sautéed in a pan, while the oysters got the hot oil treatment.
We had quinoa on the side, dressed with preserved lemon juices. The oysters and calamari got a last minute squeeze of fresh lemon, and were incredible juicy and tender, with a nice crispness. And now that I've finally deep fried at home, I would definitely fry oysters again. But I think I'll still go out for chicken and fries.


The Last-Minute Salad with Tarragon Dressing

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Sometimes you make a salad because you want to, and sometimes it's all you've got. This salad happened to be the later. For my fresh ingredients, I had plenty of romaine lettuce, a couple of tomatoes from our garden (the very last ones) and an avocado. The chickpeas and scallops were my pantry and freezer backups, perfect for a meal such as this.

The dressing was really the star here. I used the tarragon from our garden, which has finally blossomed after adjusting to our soil (it only took 6 months!). To the chopped tarragon, I added dijon mustard, tarragon champagne vinegar, olive oil, shallots and salt and pepper. Simple, but fragrant and delicious, with hints of anise and fennel.


The French Martini, A Drink for Grown Ups

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As an adolescent, I was really into martinis. Probably because of my major crush on James Bond. But then I turned 21, and the glory of the martini faded. I moved on to the dark side -- brandy, cognac and bourbon. But several years ago, I tried a French martini at a (yes, wait for it) French restaurant and fell in love. Unlike my underage days of appletinis, this version was so grown up and velvity, but without the harshness of the classic martini or the artificial sweetness of girly-flavored versions. The balanced nature of the French martini won me over, and I let this drink back into my life, with open arms.

A a few months ago, I invested in my own bottle of Chambord, and last week, I put my cocktail recipe book (an anniversary gift from the husband) to use. My first homemade French martini was delicious, well-balanced and left me wanting another drink, always a good sign. The only problem? I didn't have martini glasses and used my plain ol' tumblers, and the whole thing looked a bit ridiculous. And by a bit, I mean a lot. 

I was on a new mission -- find martini glasses, fast. Luckily, that's a simple task, and I accomplished it in record time. Two short days later, I was sipping a French martini out of a proper glass, with Mr. Bond back on my mind. 

Garden Transition to Fall

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If you can't already tell, I love autumn. It's my favorite season, and this works well for me, since we don't really have much of a winter in Southern California, and I can enjoy crispy cold weather, and warm cardigans through February. I have been preparing for fall eagerly, indoors that is, reading up on soup recipes, buying candles and placing throws on couches. And the husband has been preparing our garden.

He has started growing seedlings in tiny containers of cold season greens such as broccoli, chard, watercress and a variety of lettuces. I participated in the selection process of what we want to grow, helped to plant, and got out of the way. The care and maintenance is is not my forte. But taking pictures, now that's something I enjoy, so here's a visual update on the husband's hard work.
The last of the tomatoes.
French tarragon. It looked like it was on the verge of death for a good 6 months, but it's back!
Vietnamese basil. Another plant that looked like it would need hospice services, but it sprung back.
Lemongrass and lemon balm jungle.
The cute little seedling nursery.
Lettuce garden.

Brunch for One: Spicy Bloody Mary & Potatoes with Scallops

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Starting in late August, I worked too many weekends. The house got messy, the fridge empty, I was popping Excedrin like candy. It was not fun. Then, it all came to an end, and I had a glorious Monday to recover. Although I couldn't really make up for the three lost Saturdays and get all the postponed projects completed, I did accomplish two important tasks -- 1) I organized all my bills and financial papers from the last year, and 2) I made myself an amazing brunch.  I guess I could have squeezed in a couple of more tasks, but had orders to rest from the boss, so I rested. You don't argue with rest orders.

I started my late-morning with a Bloody Mary. I've found a mix I really, it's spicy and fresh. All I had to do was add ice, vodka, celery and celery seeds. First course, done!

For the main course, I had to run to the market for potatoes and bell peppers. I decided to throw together a hash, with onions and garlic. I was going to keep it simple, but thought better, this was my day off after all, and found scallops in the freezer to fancy up my brunch. Drizzled with dill mustard, it was the perfect solo meal to be had on the couch, while I looked out at our mountain view. We're lucky to have such an impressive view, especially since the TV situation is lacking. I will often be more entertained by the birds and bees buzzing in the front yard, than the sad three channels we receive.


First Fall Soup: Roasted Pumpkin and Butternut

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Last week, I thought fall had arrived. It was chilly for a couple of nights, so we changed out our sheets, I took out my two fall-related decorations (I am a minimalist), we made our first orange soup -- I was all set, I even had visions of using the fireplace soon. But then, this weekend, instead of the promised rain and thunderstorms, we were back to 85 degrees, and I longingly looked at my soup photos and cursed the beautiful Southern California weather.

Until the weather actually changes, I guess I'll just happily remember this soup and the two days of cool weather and pretend fall is here.
Let me start off by saying I had no intention of making this soup. I even said to the husband, "I don't want to use your stupid squash and make a soup!" I didn't really yell this, I kind of mumbled it in an exasperated way. I figured the exclamation would add some drama. 

But the husband, he tricked me, as he often does, with his ignorance. He asked me how I usually roast my squash, so I told him. I should have known better. Because he then cut his little pumpkin and his cute butternut squash in half (bounty from his garden), oiled and seasoned them, and baked them for about an hour. But it doesn't end there, he took them out of the oven, starred at them, and came calling, "So what do I do now? We have no dinner. Are you going to show me how to make this soup? We have to use this stuff I baked." Long sighhhhhhhhh. Wasn't he paying attention? I didn't want to make a soup! I didn't want to use his squash! I obviously should have yelled this!!!

So, we got to making a soup. And by we, I mean I was tricked into making a soup. Although the husband did the essential nutmeg grating for the photo op below. 

Let me end by saying, this was a good tricking, as the soup was creamy and tasted of subtle earthy spices. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to summer and start (at least according to the calendar) the next season.
Roasted Pumpkin and Butternut Soup
Serves 4

2 small butternut squash
1 small pumpkin
halved, seeded, oiled, seasoned with salt and pepper, and baked at 350 degrees for about an hour

chicken or vegetable broth, 3-4 cups
1 onion, chopped 
1 carrot, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
fresh sage, a handful
fresh thyme, a handful
1/2 tsp nutmeg 
1 tbsp brown sugar 
allspice, a pinch
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper, to taste
olive oil
heavy cream (optional)

1) Bake your squash and pumpkin, let cool, and scoop out the body (or as I like to call it the meat), leaving behind the skin.
2) In a heavy pot, heat your oil and add your onion, carrot and celery mixture, sauteing for about 10 minutes. 
3) Add your squash and pumpkin, chicken broth, bay leaf, season with salt and pepper and bring to boil. 
4) Decrease heat, add your fresh herbs, and simmer for 15 minutes.
5) Remove the bay lead and puree your soup, Grate your nutmeg, add the brown sugar and allspice. Stir and adjust the salt and pepper.
6) Add desired amount of cream, reheat soup and serve.